Becoming an avid reader is one thing I really wish for my children. Having been one myself I know the joys it brings. From never being lonely because you can literally carry your friend along, to appearing to know something extra in the class because you’ve already read it, to hiding behind a heavy tome to avoid a pesky relative, to late night excursions under the safety of your blanket – the joys and perks are innumerable. I’m waiting for the day my 7 yo DD starts reading some of my more serious favourite books. We have already starting reading some of my childhood favourites like Heidi, The Little Princess, The faraway tree etc.
Heidi’s life on the mountains is so joyous and so vividly portrayed that you get pulled into experiencing the quirks of the characters and the changing vagaries of nature almost as surely as if you were watching things unfold right in front of you. There are so many teaching moments in the book that get communicated without really trying to. The values of friendship, the healing power of nature, family and endless possibilities and optimism are just the things you want to leave your child with. And this is just one wonderful story. There are thousands of such stories and characters that you can pull out to help your child relate to in daily moments when life happens.
The other book we love to go back to all the time is Inside Out, which is actually a Pixar animated film originally. This movie / book which is largely based inside the mind of an 11-year-old, explores raw emotions of the protagonist as she goes through ups and downs in her life in the most inventive way possible. The other aspect to books that get made into movies and movies that get written down in books is the comparison of what was a better experience. It offers so much to think about, dissect, discuss and lay threadbare all the technicalities that went into the creative process…
On a more serious note, is reading just for fun? Is it just a hobby that some people love to cultivate? And would it be ok if your child didn’t like to read?
When children read well, they build the foundation for learning every other subject. (There will be exceptions of course just like in everything in life.) And that is why parents and schools alike start off teaching literacy at very young ages. We won’t get into the rights and wrongs of the right age to expose children to literacy. For some it is 2 and for others it may be 7. Most play schools and preschools in India start teaching the alphabet as soon as the child enters the premises…well, almost. Let’s look at how different educational systems approach reading and literacy instruction:
- Montessori: The Montessori set-ups start teaching the phonemes before naming the alphabet. Montessori believes in writing before reading. It believes that self-expression is more important than consuming something that is expressed by someone else. And therefore, they teach stringing phonemes together to make their own words before they start teaching decoding phonemes to read. They introduce sight words after all the phonemes but largely depend on phonetic awareness. What I like about this approach is that they teach 5 phonemes as a set at a time, not in the sequence of the alphabet, but 5 different phonemes that can make a variety of words when put together. So, with just 5 phonemes, the child can start making words and even sentences once they are into the second and third set. The level of independence and achievement experienced through this, can be quite high.
- The Waldorf schools do not want to have anything to do with reading or writing until grade 1. They do teach expression through art and stories. And they introduce each letter of the alphabet like an extension of their arts. Waldorf believes in working with hands and working with the heart for the first 7 years of life. This would have been great, had my child not started recognising words on her own much earlier and we decided that maybe this was not for us as a family.
- The Reggio Approach is to keep the child at the centre of all activities. The Reggio educators design purposeful literacy-building activities to help children learn. For e.g. traveling around your city with materials like maps, which will promote learning to decode words and comprehend the meaning. One of the Reggio principles is to allow the child’s enquiry to create the topic. For e.g. send the children outside on an insect hunt. Once they see one, help them find an age-appropriate article to read / be read to.
- The age-old approach that we grew up with – Sight reading. We grew up memorising words by spelling it out. And with steady exposure to the same word families we eventually got a hang of all the phonetic rules without actually knowing the rules. This is what my daughter started out doing when I used to read to her, when she was between 1.5 to 3.
What can we do to foster good reading habits at home?
Enough studies have shown that when children grow up in homes that have books and see parents that read, they will learn to read sooner than later. The other important habit is to read aloud and preferably at the same time each day – to make it a pleasurable routine. Reading before bed-time is considered to be most effective. The third thing is to visit libraries/ stores and have a librarian teacher / interested parent help you pick out books of your choice. EXPOSURE, CHOICE and READ FOR PLEASURE! Studies have actually shown that when literacy instruction takes over joyful reading, it can lower the scores on reading fluency and comprehension.
Teachers who do it right, are able to fit in all the required blocks – Reading Fluency, Reading comprehension, Writing, Vocabulary. Let’s look at what each one entails:
- Reading Fluency – During my 2 years at Teach for India, teaching 3rd graders, this was what we spent the biggest chunk of our time on. The first item on the check-list is to ascertain each child’s grade level / fluency score on a grade appropriate text. You keep lowering the grade until you find the appropriate text the child is comfortable with. If the child is not on grade level, we would begin with remedial phonetics and grade appropriate books / texts to practice with. Repeated exposure to the same texts is recommended, but some children may find it boring. You have got to play it by the ear. Especially the early grade texts – “Bob saw a cat. The cat was on the mat.” can be uninspiring. Th e context of reading, I think has to be what you gain as story.
We also had ways of making the drills fun. Because we had to catch up to grade level quickly, the drills were important. There was a fun rap we would do to motivate –
“Read, baby, Read
The more you read
The more you know
Cause knowledge is power
And power is freedom”
Most of my class improved 1.5-2 grade levels in each year.
- Reading Comprehension – With increased fluency, comprehension follows. However, there can always be exceptions. I have tested my 7 yo on texts of various grade levels from www.readinga-z.com and the results were a little bit astonishing. She is a 2nd grader but comprehends 4th grade text perfectly well. But when asked to read aloud she makes quite a few mistakes even with the 2nd grade text. She reads Enid Blyton and Sudha Murthy quite comfortably on her own. She still loves being read to. The only thing she doesn’t like so much is to read aloud word by word. I have decided to let her be. She can read the way she wants. I’m sure the fluency will follow comprehension in her case.
Reading is as much or maybe more about opening the door to endless possibilities and experiences that go far beyond our own than it is about following instructions and learning new subjects. It helps us peep into another person’s home, their minds, their generations of culture and their history. Like someone wise said “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but most important, it finds homes for us everywhere” So reading may not be just for fun, but if it begins with joy it is more likely to become a habit that one will enjoy the rest of their lives.